Kenya's tourist trade hopes for peaceful polls

Combing the white sands of Kenya's Indian Ocean coast with his camel George looking for customers, tourist guide Abdul Mabra hopes that elections will soon be over and that visitors will come back en masse.

For the past three days not a single customer in the usually popular tourist region has wanted to ride his camel, and he has been unable to afford the bus fare home.

"It is very quiet here, because I know people are scared of elections," he told AFP.

While early voting on Monday was mostly peaceful across Kenya, the coastal region was rocked by attacks that killed several police officers, blamed on a local separatist group that had called for a boycott of the polls.

Violence after polls five years ago caused over 1,100 deaths, hundreds of thousands displaced and an exodus of tourist cash.

"Guests left, fearing for their lives," said Duncan Osando, receptionist at the Sentido resort.

"I was forced to close my tour business and lay off my staff," said Abdulrahman Sherif Hassan.

The billion-dollar tourism industry is Kenya's second biggest cash earner after horticulture.

The exodus of foreigners contributed to Kenyan growth falling to 1.5% in 2008 from 7% the previous year.

Business has dropped by a roughly a half in the run up to the elections, said Mohammed Hersi, Chairman of the Mombasa and Coast Tourism Association and manager of the Whitesands resort.

However, some tourists have been undeterred by concerns of violence.

"Five years ago we were also here for elections and there was no trouble," said Siegried Beelletz from Germany, who has been coming here for over 20 years.

"On Monday we won't be leaving the hotel but the beach is there," she said, glancing up from her card game to the ocean waves rolling in just metres from the pool bar and restaurant some guests never stray from.

"The flights are full," said Roberta Fulgone, an Alitalia flight attendant, tucking into a mango at one of the beach's fruit carts.

"I think it doesn't matter to them, they stay in the resort," she said speaking of her fellow Italians, one of the largest groups of visitor to the coast.

At the Serena hotel, bookings are down slightly but repeat clients -- many of them British -- are buoying up business.

Taking tea in the shade of a bougainvillea from which monkeys eye the plate of biscuits, retired television presenter Ann Trevett says that she and her husband have been coming for 10 years.

"We were here for the last election. We like it because the hotel is empty," she said.

Husband Eddie, a retired architect sporting a shock of white hair and a deep tan, sucks lazily on a cigar as he recounts a foray to a local trouble spot.

"They blew up a police station just outside Mombasa and we were in a taxi going south, so we went to look at it", he said.

Strolling along the beach, Anders Andree, "a small politician in Sweden", says he and his wife came to escape "snow and ice" but plan to venture into Mombasa town on Monday not for the UNESCO sites, but "to see how the election goes".

Hersi pointed out that tourists were not attacked in the 2007-2008 violence.

"During our worst moment, not a single tourist was targeted... Kenyans know the value of tourism," he said.

Other tourists are simply oblivious to what goes on outside the palm-tree lined beaches and guided excursions.

"We don't know anything about elections," said Hussein Barish Unsal, a dentist from Turkey on a beach and safari holiday with friends, who heads to Tanzania later on Monday.